EVER since the late 1800s the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse Racecourse has been providing some of the most exciting racing in the history of the sport in this country.
From the days of Robert Peel, the first winner in 1870, the race quickly became Ireland's most valuable and prestigious steeplechase, and continues to do so today, with a prize-fund of €250,000 making it one of the most sought-after titles on the National Hunt calendar.
Mares have always fought hard to win this 3m 5f chase, but in 2013 the Dot Love-trained 50/1 outsider, Liberty Counsel, created history when storming home in front under Ben Dalton to become only the fourth mare to land the accolade since 1989.
The 11-year-old is now retired, and this year the 'ladies' will be represented by eight-year-old Caoimhe's Delight, who is among the 69 entries announced at Charlestown Stud, the home of Dot Love, last week.
"We are delighted with the entries for the Boylesports Irish Grand National," commented Peter Roe, the general manager at Fairyhouse. "This is an exciting new sponsorship deal and we look forward to working with them in developing the race and the weekend."
In addition to Irish entries such as Ulster Grand National winner Yes Tom, and top weight Don Cossack, there is also a healthy contingent from across the water. Mr Roe added: "This includes the Welsh Grand National winner, Mountainous, who fell at the ninth at Aintree. Jonjo O'Neill also has three entered, with one of those being Alfie Sherrin, who was third last year."
Other top races over the weekend include Sunday's Powers Gold Cup, which has attracted Willie Mullins' pairing of Champagne Fever and Ballycasey, and Valdez from the Alan King yard in England. Monday's Grade Two Keelings' Hurdle is expected to see the return of 2012 winner Get Me Out Of Here.
Tipperary-born Roe, who joined the team at Fairyhouse in 2011 having spent a decade at Tipperary, has put in tremendous work again this year to ensure top-class racing.
"We have such a hard-working team here at Fairyhouse," he said.
Aside from Peter Roe and his office staff, ground foreman Noel Fanning is responsible for the entire site, which consists of 100ac of racing surface.
In order to facilitate several hundred horses for the 20 race days each year, this grassland must be kept in peak condition and nothing is left to chance on the run-up to such a big weekend. Noel and his team work tirelessly to produce a super track.
From the time one meeting is over, they start preparing for the next between repairing fences, treading in divots, rolling, adding sand and ammonium nitrate, and topping the grass.
"We have two tracks, but the railings are moved five or six yards after every meeting, so we don't race on the same surface twice in one year. This gives the ground a good chance to recover," Mr Fanning said.
Naturally the weather also plays a major role in racing, but such is the advanced drainage system in place that the ground holds up remarkably well all year round.
In the other extreme, there are two reservoirs on stand-by for watering of the track as needed.
"The ground is currently soft, but the weather outlook is more optimistic," Mr Roe commented.
"The track for the Boylesports Irish Grand National has not been used this winter and we're hugely excited by what could be a high-class field.
"We are confident that with many high grade entries for the remaining races over the two days that it should be our best Easter Festival ever."
The Boylesports Grand National takes place at 5pm on Easter Monday, which is also the hugely popular Ladies' Day, sponsored this year by Carton House. Admission to racing is €20 (€15 on Sunday) and children under 18 go free.